ST. VINCENT: – Regional acclaimed lawyer, Dominican Anthony Astaphan, has encouraged Vincentians to return the Dr Ralph Gonsalves Unity Labour (ULP) to office for a third consecutive term when they vote on Dec. 13.
Astaphan, appearing on the ULP’s radio station on Sunday, Nov. 21, spoke of the achievements of the Gonsalves administration since coming to office in 2001.
He compared them to the performance of the New Democratic Party (NDP), which ran the country from 1984 to 2001.
“St. Vincent is at the crossroads. You either are going to continue to go forward or you’re going to vote to go backwards and I don’t think that is a sensible position for anyone to take,” Astaphan said.
The lawyer, who has represented the Gonsalves administration in several legal matters, spoke of the country’s progress in education, healthcare, and housing, during his appearance as a guest on Star FM’s Star Issues.
“We have had a government which has progressively, because of the public relations policy of the government and the prime minister’s ability to negotiate bilaterally and multilaterally from a diverse group of donors and sources of funding, to put in place programmes to ensure that all Vincentians have water, education, health, food and transportation.”
Astaphan said this was taking place even as “the 2010 programme of the NDP is one word: ‘No'”.
“The philosophy of the NDP is ‘no’. … The answer to any problem is ‘no’, or alternatively, Ralph Gonsalves,” he said.
Antigua and Barbuda and St. Lucia, according to Astaphan, “have learnt that governments cannot function when the parties elected are based on a programme of vilification and negativism”.
He said such philosophies are not productive “because they don’t show the function or the competence to govern”, adding that “these are the fundamental issues facing the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines”.
Astaphan said that in 1996, former Prime Minister and NDP founder Sir James Mitchell told the country that his government could not afford to give university scholarships to citizens. He compared this to the hundreds of Vincentians who have accessed university education since Gonsalves came to office.
Astaphan mistakenly said that the NDP was in office for “twenty-something years”, the party having governed for 17.
He however said that during their stint at the helm, the NDP built seven houses while the ULP has built 650 low-income and no-income houses in nine years.
He further said the ULP administrations put in place especially designed 100 per cent mortgage at former National Commercial Bank to help civil servants own their homes and spoke of the Possessory Titles Act.
“The importance of that is the fundamental focus of Ralph Gonsalves and the Unity Labour Party has been on basic human rights: housing, education, water, health. These are things that were totally and absolutely neglected by the NDP, either because, one, the traditional donors had abandoned them, as Mitchell said on the 30th of December 1996 in the House [of Assembly], or they have this neo-colonial concept of not providing social services to the people of this country because they can’t afford to pay it,” Astaphan said.
He spoke of the Ottley Hall Marina, which left the country with a debt of EC$200 million (US$74 million) but the project was later valued between EC$3.5 million (US$1.3 million) and EC$7 million (US$2.6 million).
Gonsalves has since secured debt forgiveness for the project but Sir James has employed several legal manoeuvres to avoid testifying before the tribunal although he says his “conscience is clear”.
“But compare that rather ugly and rather reckless scenario with the programmes, the funding, the grant funding that the Unity Labour Party and Ralph Gonsalves have been able to obtain over the past ten years to put in place a socio-economic revolution in St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Astaphan said.
He described education as “one of the benchmarks of social economic liberation” and responded to criticism of the “Education Revolution”, which achieved universal access to secondary education and increased the number of Vincentians at university.
The NDP has said that universal secondary education was implemented without proper planning and support systems and has pointed to the large disparity between the number of students who enrol and graduate at some schools.
“They don’t give a damn about these people and it is obvious. … what these people are saying, education is a crime?
“They (students) must be given the chance. We must not decide at an early age of the competence or inability or ability of a child … to decide whether or not he or she deserve the right of an education. Education is not a privilege. It is a right,” said Astaphan, who said he is “the classic example of a late developer”.
Astaphan also said he is the “son of a privilege class”, but added, “…we have to give everyone the opportunity, particularly those who can’t afford it, the right to go through the process of an education”.
He said that Labour parties in the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) “have taken a principled position that the state has an obligation to care for those who cannot care for themselves”.
He said the Home Help for the Elderly programme in SVG was similar to the Home Care for the Elderly programme in Dominica, which is funded largely by Venezuela and Libya.
He said the programme in his home country, like that in SVG, ensures that the elderly in poor and rural areas are not neglected.
“The medical care for the elderly is not socialism; it is the social democratic position of a Labour Party committed to the welfare of the people. That is why Ralph Gonsalves can go on the platform and pound his chest and say my government and I, and the public servants who help me with it, have put in place measures that have led to the reduction of poverty in this country. Government is not for the rich. It is for the poor and the working classes and for everybody and this is the test that the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines are going to have this election.”
He further said any politician who objects to such a programme “should be ashamed of themselves and should not be elected to government”.
Astaphan said objection to such a programme “shows … the insensitivity and the lack of caring of the NDP for the poor and working classes…”
Leader of the Opposition and NDP president Arnhim Eustace has said the Home Help for the Elderly “is one of the better programmes” the ULP has instituted and said an NDP government will continue it.
Astaphan also said that before winning a parliamentary seat and later becoming prime minister, Gonsalves spent “several years politicking”.
“By the time Gonsalves became Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, he had a legacy of experience of hard work, commitment and disciplined conceptualisation of ideas that he saw were necessary for the people of this country…”Ralph Gonsalves didn’t get into politics because of money,” Astaphan said.
He said Gonsalves had “an idea” that Caribbean societies “had to move away from the neo-colonial economy and dependencies being created by the governments of James Mitchell”, along with Sir John Compton and Dame Eugenia Charles, late prime ministers of St. Lucia and Dominica, respectively.
“So, he (Gonsalves) came in with a mission. And he didn’t come in with a desire for power and greed because he would have compromised his principles a long time ago. He would have negotiated alignments and realignments with different political parties. He held his ground and that is why the elections before he won it and there was this tie and they appointed James Mitchell as prime minister. He was prepared to stand up with the people of this country in the streets and say enough is enough.”
In 1998, the ULP gained the majority of the popular votes, but, under the country’s first-past-the post system, Sir James and his NDP, which won eight of the 15 parliamentary seats, was returned for a fourth term in office.
That fourth term was cut short when Sir James, who Astaphan described as “a dinosaur”, decidd to call fresh elections on the heel of the “Roadblock Revolution” of April 2000 that shut down capital Kingstown.
Sir James retired from electoral politics five months ahead of the March 2001 elections, bequeathing the prime ministership to Arnhim Eustace.
He campaigned on behalf of the NDP during the Constitution Referendum last November and has returned to the campaign trail for the upcoming elections
“Do you want to turn back all that Ralph Gonsalves and the Unity Labour Party has done and go back to the days of NDP cabalism that only those who are aligned politically and family-wise and social-wise to Sir James Mitchell could benefit from state lands bought at ridiculous prices and to profit at the expense of the state …?” Astaphan said.
Clem Ballah and trade unionist Noel Jackson also appeared on Sunday’s programme.
Senator Julian Francis, the General Secretary of the ULP said the party was “thrilled” to have Astaphan share his analysis of the election and the progress of the ULP government.
“Having someone as intelligent, accomplished, and respected throughout the Caribbean as Mr. Astaphan come out and speak in support of re-election is an honour for the ULP, and we look forward to his participation in the campaign,” Francis said in a media release before Astaphan’s appearance on the show.
Astaphan said he would be in SVG for some time but did not indicate for how long.